Concert review: Buckeye Country Superfest at Ohio Stadium

Andy Downing
Miranda Lambert performed Sunday at Buckeye Country Superfest

Ohio Stadium might belong to Urban Meyer and Co. during the college football season, but on the second day of the inaugural Buckeye Country Superfest another Urban — Australian country singer Keith Urban — laid his claim to the turf.

If you experienced a bit of deja vu reading this opening sentence, well, that's understandable, because this is exactly how Alive kicked off its review of the annual country spectacle in 2015.

Superfest attendees likely experienced a similar been-there, done-that sensation this past weekend, with organizers having recycled a pair of year-one headliners for 2017: The aforementioned Urban, who headlined alongside the Zac Brown Band on Saturday, and Kenny Chesney, who closed out Sunday's festivities following a short, stellar set from Miranda Lambert.

As in past years, the scarcity of female performers was jarring — Jana Kramer joined Lambert as the only women on the lineup — though the trend is more indicative of country radio's lingering boy's-club mentality, which generated some controversy in 2015 (Google "Tomatoegate") but not a whole lot in the way of change.

The homogeneous, cookie-cutter nature of mainstream country radio revealed itself on occasion at Ohio Stadium on Sunday, with musicians exploring variations on the same themes. Michigan-born, Nashville-based singer/guitarist Frankie Ballard introduced “It All Started With a Beer” by asking the crowd, “Anybody out there drinking beer?” Roughly an hour later, Billy Currington, a sad-eyed, Georgia-born singer, parroted the line. “Where's all the beer drinkers tonight?” he asked before plowing into “Pretty Good at Drinkin' Beer,” a song that explores the racial tensions driving the … JUST KIDDING.

Though at times formulaic, this type of escapism is central to the format's success. Country radio tends to exist in a hermetically sealed, apolitical world where the beer is always cold, the jukebox is always rocking and, once you're off the clock, there's nothing that can hold you back. “It's a Friday night,” Currington drawled on “We Are Tonight,” “and we rule the world.”

Currington filled the rest of his 45-minute set bouncing between two-dimensional portraits of small-town Southerners (“They run on a big ol' heart and a pinch of Skoal/That's how country boys roll”), happy-hour anthems (“People Are Crazy” centered on the line “God is great and beer is good”) and comparatively bittersweet tunes like the resolute “It Don't Hurt Like It Used To,” which was still less about past pains than his current smiley-emoji status. “Life is good,” he crooned.

Ballard, dressed in a black leather jacket in spite of temperatures that hovered just below 90 degrees, injected a bit of engine-revving, Motor City rock into his early evening set. Lyrically, the Michigan native's songs didn't offer much in the way of depth — “It All Started With a Beer,” for one, played like a spec script for an AB InBev TV spot — but there were times when Ballard locked in with his three-piece backing crew the Wildcat Band and it was almost possible to imagine what it might have sounded like taking in the Silver Bullet Band at the Palace of Auburn Hills in the late '80s.

Coming on the heels of a forgettable opening turn from LANco, which borrowed its name from a would-be pharma company and its derivative sound from Kings of Leon, it was positively thrilling.

Miranda Lambert, who walked onstage to footage of Sister Rosetta Tharpe singing “Up Above My Head,” existed in this rarified air for much of her 40-minute performance. The Texas-born singer shifted ably from pained turns like “Vice,” which included lines about moving to a town “where my reputation don't proceed me,” to flame-throwing cuts where she fantasized about sticking around to inflict further damage. “You better be careful what you say,” she cautioned on “White Liar,” pausing to emphasize the kicker: “I got friends in this town.”

A similar turning-of-the-tables took place in “Baggage Claim,” where Lambert ended the song by exclaiming, “Come and get your shit,” her dry, acidic tone suggesting her ex's things had already long been scattered on the lawn. This was a far cry from the shattered narrator who walked ghost-like through the sparse, acoustic “The House that Built Me,” retracing the past in the hopes that “this brokenness in me might start healing.”

Even in those moments when Lambert tended her wounds and considered giving up on love altogether, such as she did on the banjo-flecked “Kerosene,” her tone hinted at a deep, unshaken resolve, as if somehow absorbing these hurts only served to make her stronger. And, failing that, all the singer needed was a pair of cheap “Pink Sunglasses” to turn the tide. “My pink sunglasses always make the world look a little bit better,” she beamed.

While storms raged in Lambert's music — sometimes literally (an animation of lightning-filled skies accompanied the fiery “Little Red Wagon”) — the clouds parted for Kenny Chesney, who closed out the evening with a sunny array of beachside fantasies.

Dressed in a T-shirt advertising a Virgin Island scuba diving company, the tanned Tennesseean invited concertgoers down to his home, home on the range, to have beers, cantaloupe daiquiris and soak up rays. “Reality” set the tone for the set, with its lines about “breaking free from reality” in order to post up on ocean-adrift boats and at surf-side bars. Chesney's songs, in turn, ventured from across-the-border villas (“Beer in Mexico”) to tropical islands (“No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problems”), the ever-present sand and sea suggesting he drives a car tagged with a bumper sticker that reads, “My other ride is a jet ski.”

At times, the singer, whose six-piece backing band injected the oft-interchangeable songs with arena-rock muscle, explored moodier terrain (the power ballad-esque “Somewhere With You”), but more often his music focused on the day drinking at hand rather than the hangover that might be lurking come nightfall.